James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Last month, I posted what turned out to be the most pop­u­lar post I’ve writ­ten in years about a topic many peo­ple would con­sider not too ter­ri­bly fas­ci­nat­ing (or there­fore too ter­ri­bly pop­u­lar!): APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, the ma­chine-to-ma­chine con­nec­tion pro­to­cols used by one piece of soft­ware to talk to an­other. “It’s the API, Stupid! Or How to Crowdsource Your App Ecosystem” turned out to be both pop­u­lar and some­what pre­dic­tive of later events. In short or­der the tech uni­verse brought us a se­ries of com­pletely con­tra­dic­tory de­vel­op­ment in API World, but I was dis­tracted with the birth of my sec­ond child, so here we are, a month or so later, catch­ing up.

First, the big API news (un­til Friday of last week): Oracle v. Google, in which Oracle, the ac­quirer of the Sun’s Java in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty in­clud­ing its copy­rights and patents, con­tended that Google’s im­ple­men­ta­tion of func­tion­al­ity com­pat­i­ble with the Java APIs con­sti­tuted (a) patent in­fringe­ment; (b) copy­right in­fringe­ment; or (c) both. The tech world should be grate­ful that it was Judge Alsup, a pro­gram­mer, Harvard Law School (and Kennedy School) grad, and erst­while clerk to a US Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, who presided over the case. We’re for­tu­nate both be­causqe Judge Alsup had enough savvy to let the jury reach a ver­dict on copy­right in­fringe­ment and be­cause he then (af­ter al­low­ing the jury to re­turn a ver­dict) had enough do­main knowl­edge to rule the APIs were not copy­rightable in the first place:

So long as the spe­cific code used to im­ple­ment a method is dif­fer­ent, any­one is free un­der the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out ex­actly the same func­tion or spec­i­fi­ca­tion of any meth­ods used in the Java API. It does not mat­ter that the de­c­la­ra­tion or method header lines are iden­ti­cal.

Under the rules of Java, they must be iden­ti­cal to de­clare a method spec­i­fy­ing the same func­tion­al­ity — even when the im­ple­men­ta­tion is dif­fer­ent. When there is only one way to ex­press an idea or func­tion, then every­one is free to do so and no one can mo­nop­o­lize that ex­pres­sion. And, while the Android method and class names could have been dif­fer­ent from the names of their coun­ter­parts in Java and still have worked, copy­right pro­tec­tion never ex­tends to names or short phrases as a mat­ter of law. (( Order Re: Copyrightability of Certain Replicated Elements of the Java Application Programming Interface, Case 3: 10-cv-03561-WHA, doc­u­ment 1202, filed May 31, 2012. ))

Judge Alsup has drawn the bright line be­tween com­pat­i­bil­ity and du­pli­ca­tion around which the in­dus­try has been tip­toe­ing for years. Writing soft­ware that works with some­one else’s soft­ware? Always been per­fectly fine. Writing soft­ware that mim­ics the be­hav­ior of some­one else’s soft­ware? Fine, so long as you don’t copy their im­ple­men­ta­tion, as con­firmed by Judge Alsup. Translation: open mar­ket for com­pe­ti­tion.

…un­til you have to ac­tu­ally use someone’s API, as wit­ness last week’s big Twitter dustup. Twitter con­tin­ues to ratchet down the ac­cept­able uses of their API, and in­stead of lit­i­gat­ing, they’re sim­ply cut­ting off users whose im­ple­men­ta­tions they ei­ther don’t like or have grown beyond–including, no­tably, LinkedIn’s, as they be­came ev­i­dent last Friday. This isn’t the first time Twitter has taken aim at the de­vel­op­ers who have cre­ated its much-vaunted app ecosys­tem. Just a year ago, Twitter spent $40 mil­lion to ac­quire Tweetdeck, de­vel­oped of an ex­cel­lent (and epony­mous) Twitter client, and in the process overtly di­rected de­vel­op­ers not to at­tempt to com­pete with them on client ap­pli­ca­tions. They didn’t turn any­one off that time, but they cer­tainly be­gan to put a fence around their API. The most re­cent changes Twitter made came with more wood be­hind the bat: they turned off their part­ner­ship with LinkedIn on what ap­peared to be pretty short notice–thus fur­ther en­trench­ing their po­si­tion that they would con­trol their API at all costs, in­clud­ing some bad press.

It seems the Cloudiverse an­tic­i­pated Judge Alsup’s rul­ing by giv­ing API own­ers the ul­ti­mate trump card: the power to shut off users whose ac­tiv­i­ties they dis­agree with. If those users are in­di­vid­u­als, there is cer­tainly no re­course. If they are larger com­pa­nies…there is still no re­course. Possession re­mains nine tenths of the law–es­pe­cially when your API acts as the gate­way to your plat­form, and you pos­sess both. Twitter isn’t the only tech tabloid star to tus­sle about APIs re­cently: just yes­ter­day, word got out that Facebook was shut­ting down the APIs they had promised to sup­port when face.com an­nounced it was be­ing ac­quired by Facebook in June. The Twitterverse was rapidly filled with de­vel­op­ers fac­ing API-apoc­a­lypse:

So Judge Alsup looses the dogs of com­pe­ti­tion and the Cloudiverse re­sponds with its own, pos­ses­sion-trumps-all re­but­tal. These are in­ter­est­ing times in­deed to ob­serve the API World. Enjoy–and pass the pop­corn, please.

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It’s the API, Stupid! How to Crowdsource Your App Ecosystem

May 6, 2012
APIs Are Cool.  Who Knew? In the ’90s, every­one knew that BizDev was the key to suc­cess in Silicon Valley. What will be this decade’s BizDev? The API. Twitter was pro­pelled to early suc­cess by lever­ag­ing a huge com­mu­nity of de­vel­op­ers vir­tu­ally none of whom were ac­tu­ally em­ployed at Twitter. How did they do that? They…
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The World Just Changed—On SOPA, Susan G. Komen, and a 1979 Prediction

Thumbnail image for The World Just Changed—On SOPA, Susan G. Komen, and a 1979 Prediction February 3, 2012
When I was five or six, my par­ents, who have made a life of res­cu­ing lone­some books from book­stores and giv­ing them good homes, brought home one such foundling for their son, a book about the fu­ture, ap­pro­pri­ately ti­tled Future Cities: Homes and Living into the 21st Century (World of the Future).…
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Coding is Literacy

January 23, 2012
As a proud grew-up-with-the-Commodore-64 type, I’ve al­ways con­sid­ered cod­ing part of my DNA. (To be pre­cise, “pro­gram­ming” has al­ways been part of my DNA. The term “cod­ing” is a ne­ol­o­gism of sorts, but these days I have to self-iden­tify by it, lest I some­how be­come, de­spite my thir­tysome­thing creds, “an old guy,” this post
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Pizza Night Interruptus: On Emergency Response Times

September 3, 2011
Pizza Night Friday nights are re­served for fam­ily pizza night. Although no startup exec is too sur­prised when busi­ness in­trudes on a fam­ily rit­ual, none of us could have ex­pected the mat­ter of emer­gency ser­vices re­sponse times would come crashing—quite literally—into our Friday night. …Interruptus At 8:46pm last night, we heard…
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Watching Cairo from Riyadh, and other reflections on Egypt from Saudi Arabia

February 12, 2011
I seem to have a habit of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing im­por­tant geo-po­lit­i­cal events from what, at least for me, rep­re­sent un­likely (if not ex­otic) lo­cales. Two years ago last month I watched the United States in­au­gu­rate its first African American pres­i­dent from be­hind the barbed wires and con­crete bol­lards pro­tect­ing my ho­tel room in
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Tucson = Islamabad? (or Extremism Exists in America, Too)

January 8, 2011
By now, you have heard the news. A gun­man opens fire on a pub­lic fig­ure in vi­o­lent re­pu­di­a­tion of that pub­lic figure’s be­liefs. The pub­lic fig­ure is shot. Extremists mark an­other vic­tory. Think I’m writ­ing about the today’s hor­rific at­tack in Tucson, Arizona? And happy that the pub­lic fig­ure, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is ex­pected to
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Facebook Fight: 12 Billion Apples and Oranges

December 31, 2010
Miguel Helft’s ar­ti­cle (“Twins’ Facebook Fight Rages On”) in today’s New York Times re­counts the on­go­ing saga of the law­suit brought by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, the iden­ti­cal twin Harvard grad­u­ates who have al­leged that Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them. Unfortunately, the ar­ti­cle also per­pet­u­ates a $12…
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Germany is the new AIG (and what Justin Bieber has to do with it)

December 5, 2010
I’ve got a great new in­vest­ment for you. You’ll love it. We’re go­ing to bun­dle up a bunch of bad debt from BBB- bor­row­ers who ba­si­cally can’t bor­row an­other cent, mix it up with some in­sur­ance guar­an­tees, and then present it to Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. The rat­ing agen­cies will give the bonds…
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